If there ever was a time Arkansas-Pine Bluff needed its best start to a men’s basketball season in more than a decade, this was it.
UAPB made a little history earlier this week in defeating Division II teams Tuskegee (Ala.) and Morehouse (Ga.) at the latter’s HBCU Tip-Off Challenge. It marks the first time on record as a Division I team, dating back to the 1998-99 season, the Golden Lions started 2-0. (UAPB joined the SWAC in 1997 and gained full-member status a year later.)
“I just think right now, the guys have a little more sense of confidence,” sixth-year coach George Ivory said Thursday. “They still understand they have a lot more of work to do.”
Part of that work is a tall order the Lions face Friday night in Stillwater, Okla., when they visit eighth-ranked Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys (2-0), who along with Kansas are co-favorites to win the Big 12 championship, have started off with 55- and 53-point wins against Mississippi Valley State and Utah Valley, respectively, averaging 105 points in the process. But that’s nothing for Ivory and the Lions to shy away from.
It’s just another example of taking on a big-name team in a nonconference slate without home games, which is the norm for UAPB.
“The guys are looking forward to the challenge,” Ivory said.
They’re also looking forward to the collegiate debut of Ghiavonni Robinson, who will start at the two-guard spot for UAPB on Friday. The 6-foot-3 freshman from Leflore County (Miss.) High School missed UAPB’s first two games waiting to be cleared by the NCAA to play.
Robinson, who averaged 23 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds per game at Leflore County, will start alongside Tevin Hammond in the backcourt. Trent Whiting will move from two-guard to small forward in the starting lineup, with Davon Haynes at power forward and Daniel Broughton at center, Ivory said.
Whiting has been impressive in two starts, averaging 9.5 points per game and knocking down all three three-point attempts. The sophomore from Des Arc averaged 1.3 in a backup role last season.
“Trent came back and did a lot of good things for us,” Ivory said. “We’re looking for him to be more aggressive.”
But it’s junior guard Marcel Mosley (14.5 ppg) who’s leading the Lions in scoring in a reserve role. The Marion product is 8 for 13 from the floor, 3 for 4 from three-point range and 10 for 10 from the free-throw line with five steals on the season.
Haynes (13.5 ppg) and Hammond (11.5) are second and third on the team in scoring. Broughton has been held to 7.0 ppg.
“He has to work a little harder because teams are going to key on him,” Ivory said of Broughton. “We’re still trying to feed him the ball. We don’t want to forget he’s a key part of the team.”
Oklahoma State has thrived on offense with six players averaging in double figures. The Cowboys’ leading scorer, sophomore guard Phil Forte (20.5), also is a reserve.
But trying to slow down unanimous Associated Press Preseason All-American Marcus Smart and Le’Bryan Nash will be key. Smart, a 6-foot-4 sophomore guard, has balanced numbers on offense (12.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game), but coming off a school-record nine steals against Utah Valley on Tuesday, he’s asserted himself as a solid defender.
“Those three guys are just great basketball players,” Ivory said. “Marcus Smart does so many great things as a point guard.”
How high is Smart regarded? The reigning Big 12 player of the year appears on the latest cover of Sports Illustrated defending against Kansas’ Wayne Selden Jr.
Nash, a 6-foot-7 junior, shoots 60 percent from the floor while averaging 16 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.
When UAPB goes man-to-man on defense, Robinson will be assigned to try and contain Smart. Hammond will draw Forte and Haynes will go against Nash. The Lions have had success defending against the long-range shot, holding Tuskegee and Morehouse combined to 20.6 percent.
Just hanging with the Cowboys — who, by the way, are 21-0 all-time against SWAC teams — is a tall order, but Ivory knows the keys to keeping the game competitive.
“You can’t go in there and turn the ball over 20 times,” Ivory said. “You can’t give them fast-break points. We have to control the boards and don’t turn the ball over.”
UAPB (2-0) at Oklahoma State (0-2)
• When: 7 p.m. Friday
• Where: Gallagher-Iba Arena, Stillwater, Okla.
• TV: Fox Sports Oklahoma (DirecTV 679-1, Dish 433, AT&T U-Verse 648)
• Series: Oklahoma State leads 2-0; last meeting Oklahoma State 73, UAPB 46, in Stillwater, on Nov. 15, 2011